Why Was Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier?

By: Josh Clark  | 

Davy Crockett movie, Fess Parker
This poster for the 1955 Disney film about Davy Crockett isn't shy about giving him his title. LMPC via Getty Images

If you were a child in the 1950s, you were likely a part of Davy Crockett's fan base. The legendary frontiersman experienced a resurgence in popularity more than 100 years after his death, thanks to a little help from Mr. Walt Disney. Between 1954 and 1955, Disney aired five episodes of "Davy Crockett" on television, and the series chronicling Crockett's larger-than-life adventures became an instant success. Different singers' recordings of the show's theme song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," sold millions of copies. Crockett's trademark coonskin cap (which looked pretty much like a raccoon sleeping atop the wearer's head) became a fad among preadolescent fans and ironic teenagers alike. All told, more than $100 million worth of Davy Crockett material was sold within just a few months of the Disney show's premiere [source: New York Times]. Even the U.S. government caught Crockett fever: In the early 1960s, the army produced a lightweight artillery launcher that fired mortars equipped with small nuclear warheads. The army named the setup the "Davy Crockett" [source: Brookings Institution].

This wasn't the first time Davy Crockett enjoyed far-flung fame. While he was alive, he attained celebrity status — during a time when newspapers and books were the only available means of publicity. Yet Davy Crockett still emerged as an international star. Many books and plays based on (and grossly exaggerating) his life and exploits were written. And following his death as a defender of the Alamo, his legend grew even larger.

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Crockett was an expert frontiersman, eschewing the comforts of Eastern cities and pushing westward to carve a life out of the American wilderness. But it wasn't until Disney got involved in Crockett's legend that Davy was pronounced "king of the wild frontier." It wasn't such an exaggeration given some of his documented exploits.

Today, with the TV show off the air more than 60 years, many people are not as familiar with him as they were in the past and they may not know he even spent time in Congress. So, who was the real Davy Crockett?

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Davy Crockett Myth: Bear Hunter and Progressive Politician

David Crockett,
The real Davy Crockett, ca. 1836. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Later in his life, Davy Crockett adopted the motto, "Be sure you're right, then go ahead" [source: Smithsonian]. He was true to this independent ideal from an early age. At 12, he ran away from his first job of driving cattle after it became clear it was merely indentured servitude. His dramatic escape entailed a two-hour, 7-mile nighttime run in knee-deep snow. And he chose work over school, generally. But Crockett was proud of the life he made for himself without the benefit of a formal education. He wore his lack of schooling like a badge of honor.

During his lifetime, Crockett's frontiersmanship became legendary. The book and play "Lion of the West" and other popular books chronicled his life. These biographies were fantastic, absurd accounts of Crockett's wilderness prowess. And when one was written by an author who falsely attributed the "autobiography" to Crockett himself (ostensibly to boost sales), Davy's endearing reputation as a teller of tall tales was secured. Crockett eventually did write his autobiography, which also spun some unbelievable yarns. In one chapter, Crockett describes how he killed 105 bears in one year [source: Crockett].

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Bear hunting was seminally integrated into Crockett's image. The "Ballad of Davy Crockett" (the theme song of the Disney series) mentions that Davy "kilt him a b'ar when he was only three." While this is likely not the case, it captures the essence of his larger-than-life reputation.

At a time when American expansion was meeting resistance from American Indians, Crockett was also regarded as a "brave Indian fighter." As a member of the Tennessee militia during the Creek Indian War, Crockett participated in a massacre of an American Indian village in Alabama, in retribution for a previous raid by the tribe [source: TSHA]. He also fought in the War of 1812 against the British. In 1817, he entered local politics in Lawrence County, Tennessee, fighting for land rights for poor settlers. In 1829 he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives [source: History].

At some point, Crockett changed his views toward American Indians. As a congressman for Tennessee, he came to oppose President Andrew Jackson's land-use policies. The president's ideas for securing new settlements included the forced removal of American Indians from their tribal lands. Crockett was so vehemently opposed to American Indian removal and land grabbing that he lost his re-election bid to Congress in 1831. However, he was re-elected in 1833.

In 1835, he lost his Congressional seat again and left politics for good, but not before telling newspapers, "I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas" [source: Texas State Library]. And so he did. He was so caught up in the Texas revolutionary spirit as the former Mexican state struggled for independence (and intrigued by the promise of money from land speculation that a free republic eventually promised), that he volunteered to serve as a member of the rebel militia fighting the Mexican Army there.

Crockett died in Texas the next year during the famous 1836 siege at the Alamo, but his death only brought him more glory. He's been portrayed in depictions of the battle using his trusty musket "Old Betsy" as a club, dealing blows to Mexican soldiers. His soldiering was called into question later from firsthand accounts that told of Crockett being captured rather than dying amid a rubble of Mexican corpses. But when the diary of a Mexican solider who had fought at the Alamo was discovered in 1975, Crockett's valiant reputation was supported by the soldier's words: Crockett had been a rallying figure for the doomed men at the fort before he was brutally executed at the hands of the Mexicans upon his capture [source: PBS].

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Originally Published: May 5, 2008

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More Great Links

  • Brookings Institution "50 Fact About U.S. Nuclear Weapons Today." (May 12, 2021) https://www.brookings.edu/research/50-facts-about-u-s-nuclear-weapons-today/
  • Crockett, Col. David. "Not yours to give." Foundation for Economic Education. http://www.fee.org/library/books/notyours.asp
  • Crockett, David and Chilton, Thomas. "A narrative of the life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee." Carey, Hart and Co. 1834. http://books.google.com/books?id=vl2-pBghhEEC&dq=davy+crockett&pg=PP1&ots=Lo0d61LrXk&source=citation&sig=26_GEpnNU7H8SirbkBb84tPhGDA&hl=en&prev=http://www.google.com/searchq=davy+crockett&sourceid=navclientff&ie=UTF8&rlz=1B3GGGL_enUS240US240&sa=X&oi=print&ct=result&cd=2&cad=bottom-3results#PPA165,M1
  • Lofaro, Michael A. "Crockett, David." The Handbook of Texas Online. Jan. 17, 2008. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/fcr24.html
  • New York Times. "Davy Crockett, King of the Retail Frontier." March 20, 2010 (May 21, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/weekinreview/21back.html
  • "Bear hunting in Tennessee: Davy Crockett tells tales, 1834." George Mason University. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5816/
  • "David Crockett." Texas State Library. November 2, 2005. http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/republic/alamo/crockett-01.html
  • "Hatchet presented to Davy Crockett in 1835." Smithsonian Institution. 2001. http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=98
  • "People and events: David "Davy" Crockett (1786-1836)." PBS. January 30, 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/alamo/peopleevents/p_crockett.html

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